Tribeca 2011 Review: RABIES

columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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Tribeca 2011 Review: RABIES

The Tribeca programming notes, which contend that Rabies (Kalevet) is "worthy of its mantle as Israel's first-ever horror film," aren't exactly as encouraging as they seem to feel they are. After all, do you really want the film you're seeing to be billed as the potential answer to a future trivia question? And how is a film "worthy" of being the first anything--either it is or isn't, right? Fortunately, Rabies represents more than a glorified footnote in an international encyclopedia of obscure horror. A whole lot more, actually. In fact, it's the most fun I've had with a horror flick all year... and this is a genre that often feels piped into my system continuously, IV-style. 

When it also evokes the "slasher in the woods" über-cliché, the text of the fest's official plot synopsis isn't too promising either. So between that and what sounds like a somewhat generic, Cabin Fever-esque title, I seriously considered giving the film a pass; it was just too easy to dismiss its inclusion in Tribeca's "Cinemania" strand as a symptom of cinema exotica, wherein a foreign-grown B-movie is automatically considered more worthy, or at least more interesting, than the homegrown equivalent (this is a disease I myself contracted years ago when it comes to action movies).    

Certainly with its opening, which features terse dialogue spoken over a black screen, Rabies begins on a strong note--it pulls you in with its sheer intensity, and pretty much holds you in place thereafter. "But wait a sec," I cautioned myself. "You've seen plenty of horror movies that start in engaging ways and then turn depressingly formulaic in the first fifteen minutes or so. Steady, my boy... Let's not get too excited just yet."


Another very early sequence, one involving some good-looking young people laughing and flirting it up while on a road trip, started to confirm my suspicions. I'd seen this same slasher set-up in Scandinavia, Central Asia, Appalachia, and everywhere in between. And while, yes, the film was consistently diverting, the only truly innovation by the filmmakers seemed to be making these characters tennis players--an alternate way of getting the women into cute skirts instead of making them cheerleaders or fetching "school girls."  

Ah, but little did I know that the strategy of writer-directors Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales--strategy on the levels of plot, style, and theme--was to lull me into a sense of snarky complacency, and then whack me with a sledgehammer to the skull (and yes, that's an image from the film). While far less overtly "meta" than Scream 4, Rabies is without question more profoundly postmodern: it uses the audience's built-in awareness of horror conventions not simply to comment on those conventions, or the latest genre trends, but on our humanity itself. Sound lofty? Yep, it is. And what's more, Rabies achieves its edifying goals without ever sacrificing the kind of pulpy pleasures that one expects from the genre: it never descends to being merely a pretentious cerebral exercise. Instead, it relies on dramatic irony, and a nearly tear-inducing sense of the truly tragic. 

Oh, and in case you hadn't noticed, this review has been vaguer, and has included more references to my subjective reactions (without calling out the specifics that triggered them), than the typical piece I've done for ScreenAnarchy. Never really one for plot synopses, I feel that in this case my stance is more justified than usual. If you know anything in advance about Rabies other than that there's violence, death, and mayhem, you probably know too much.  

All right, let me try to be a tad more concrete: you sit there watching Rabies, waiting for a serious weakness to reveal itself, but the editing, pacing, humor, compositional angles, direction of the performances, music, and so on--none of these elements disappoint. Rather, Rabies distinguishes itself as one of the most original and deeply horrific films in recent memory.

Screens: April 21, 27, 28, 29, 30 (online only)

[Photo credit: Guy Raz]
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